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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Fish Inspection

It was a cartoon that sellers of fish are not likely to forget. A housewife with a cart is looking at the fish counter in a supermarket. Different rows of fish are labeled “regular unleaded,” “premium unleaded” and “high octane.”

Yes, the time for mandatory fish inspection is long overdue. All these reports about contaminated shellfish and unsanitary processing of fish are beginning to lead more people away from the fish counters. For the first time since 1981, national fish consumption declined slightly.

This summer features more reports on oyster and clam beds poisoned with sewage and chemical pollutants. The National Wildlife Federation released a study last month concluding that the risk of human cancer from eating certain Great Lakes fish is much higher than previously reported.

There is no federal fish inspection program, other than a voluntary, weak one by the National Marine Fisheries Service which covers about 11 percent of the total seafood sold in the U.S. Back in the late Sixties, stronger meat and poultry inspection laws were passed. The fish inspection bill was stalled and eventually dropped by Congress because of a deadlock dispute between those consumer groups who wanted continual inspection and the fish lobby which would settle only for periodic inspection.

Now, however, the looming news about fish contamination and bootlegging of shellfish from harvest areas banned due to pollution is bringing the consumer and industry forces together behind mandatory seafood inspection in principle. The fishing industry is concerned that people will react to the frightening news by boycotting their products. Consumers groups believe the time is ripe for action.

Pound for pound, seafood causes more sickness than do meat or poultry. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that for every billion pounds of seafood consumed by Americans, 171 people come down with food poisoning. The comparative figures for poultry is 102 and for beef and veal 57. From Louisiana to New Bedford, Massachusetts, shellfish bootlegging is spreading and escaping the efforts of the few patrols searching for the culprits. Food and Drug Administration officials believe that 20% of the harvest of Louisiana oysters is illegal.

More than squeamishness over garbage and sewage contaminated waters is involved. Serious diseases result from such bootlegging. Last year, 60 people in Panama City, Florida, who unknowingly ate bootlegged oysters sold to them in stores and tourist hotels, came down with liver disease hepatitis A.

There are other problems. Poor refrigeration during transport and storage and abysmal sanitation in some processing plants raise warning flags. Mislabeled products and menus can make people sick. Some menus listing red snapper sell you barracuda instead. Barracuda carries the ciguatoxin from smaller fish they’ve eaten who had been feeding on a toxic plankton. Scombroid poisoning arises from some tropical fish such as tuna, bonito and mackerel if they have not been adequately refrigerated.

In recent months, several Congressional hearings have been held about the kind of mandatory inspection legislation that could pass. Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, testified that consumer confidence is in jeopardy and the system needs improvement. Ellen Haas of Public Voice and-her coalition of consumer and-health groups want a law enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and paid for by taxpayers, not user fees imposed on the industry.

The fishing industry, for selfish reasons, agrees with Haas that the taxpayers should pay. Haas believes user fees would compromise the objectivity of the federal inspection process. The estimated annual cost of the program nationwide is around $100 million.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) says “there is no way” the Congress would appropriate that much money. Isn’t it remarkable that this same Congress is about to place a $300 billion bailout burden over the next thirty years on the taxpayers for the Savings and Loan criminality. That’s an average of $30 billion a year for the mess business crooks created. But no $100 million to safeguard the fish supply from the harvest waters to your supermarket.

Dingell is probably right about his prediction that without industry user fees, there will be no inspection program. The hardpressed Food and Drug Administration, faced with growing imported and domestic food contamination problems, asked President Bush for an additional $14 million and 232 more employees for next year’s budget. In reply, The White House approved a $1 million increase and no new food safety staff.

It is time once again for the American people to let Washington know who is boss!